Vice President Joe Biden speaks to members of the American Federation of… (Patrick T. Fallon / Los Angeles…)
Once again taking on the role of working-class man in the White House, Vice President Joe Biden spoke to a gathering of public employee unions Tuesday, rallying them to fight against what he called “the greatest assault on working-class people and their unions that I’ve seen in my lifetime."
Speaking to a cheering crowd at the Los Angeles Convention Center, Biden praised the work of public employees who plow roads during blizzards, put out fires and drive ambulances -- a story line that experts say public employee unions have not been successful enough at promoting.
“We owe you. You shouldn’t be vilified,” Biden said to a crowd at the 40th International Convention of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “You provide the day-care centers, you provide the hospitals, you provide the ability of people to live a decent middle-class life. We owe you.”
Biden criticized Mitt Romney and what he called “the new Republican Party” for scapegoating public employee unions. He said unions were being blamed for "this godawful hole" that Republicans "put us in.”
The union delegates, dressed in green Obama/Biden shirts, acted in the same manner of a crowd at a baseball game -- snacking and looking disinterested one minute, on their feet cheering and waving foam fingers the next.
“Folks, these guys not only don’t get it, they don’t seem to want to get it,” Biden said. “They hear labor and they think enemy. They hear labor and they see an opportunity to try to scapegoat labor for the problems they’ve created.”
It is the second time Biden has been asked to step in at labor events for the White House. Last Labor Day, he spoke to an AFL-CIO picnic in Ohio and pledged his support in what he called “a fight for the heart and soul of the labor movement.”
Public employee unions have been under assault in the last year as a tide of governors looking for budget cuts sought to reduce benefits and take away the power of unions to collectively bargain. So far, efforts to fight those laws have been mixed.
Ohio residents voted to overturn a measure passed by Gov. John Kasich that would have stripped public employees of collective bargaining rights, but Wisconsin residents voted against a recall of Gov. Scott Walker, who passed a similar measure reducing the bargaining rights of public employee unions.
Union membership has been slipping across the nation. Despite unions’ waning power, Democrats need both the organization and money of unions like AFSCME to win in November. AFSCME is expected to spend as much as $100 million on electoral campaigns this year, and it already weighed in during the GOP primary in February with a $1-million ad buy attacking Romney’s record on Medicare.
AFSCME itself is in the midst of a contested election for its leadership, a rarity in labor. The election, which will be decided this week at the convention, pits current Secretary-Treasurer Lee Saunders against Danny Donohue, a New York labor leader who is pushing for change. Saunders gave an impassioned speech to the crowd immediately before Biden came on the stage, pledging to fight against whichever political party tries to decrease unions’ power.
“We’re being jerked around by both Democrats and Republicans, so we must be clear – this isn’t about conservative vs. liberal or right vs. left, it's about what’s right vs. what’s wrong,” he said.
AFSCME endorsed the Obama-Biden campaign in December.
Labor experts say AFSCME’s new leader will have to reeducate the public about the role that public employee unions play in American lives.
“I think all unions need to do a better job of education people about why they’re important,” said Paul Secunda, associate professor of law at Marquette University. “Public employee unions need to say, 'We work hard, we provide great services, we make what we should make.' "
Biden's speech might have been a preview to this message. He thanked public employee unions for the role they play in local communities, and for agreeing to pay freezes and salary cuts, all in the name of cooperation.
"When someone is trapped in a second story in a burning building, it’s a public employee who runs into that fire,” he said. “When a woman is in trouble, she dials 911, it’s a public worker who answered that telephone, it’s a public worker who's dispatched to try to save her life.”
Biden was followed on stage by MSNBC's Ed Schultz, a vocal labor supporter.